Greenwash…..You’ve heard the word but what does it actually mean? Marketing has got very savvy and has jumped on the eco-bandwagon. The Eco and Green industries have seen a huge market share rise, what with the popularity of organics, sustainability, vegan and free-from diets, fair-trade products and chemical- free living. Corporations marketing various food and cosmetic products want a piece of this pie but without the resultant loss of profits that doing things ethically or with higher sustainability values might incur. What it means is that we are lead to believe that the product being marketed has ethical or eco integrity when in fact this is non-existent or at least minimal. The products are actually the same as usual but the marketing has changed to entice in a new breed of conscious consumer. I will go through a number of common ways that we can be misled when buying products for there so-called eco/natural/sustainable credentials
1. Use of misleading, unregulated language
One of the most common greenwash definitions is the use of misleading language and words. ‘Natural’ is probably the most common and least easily definable. It is completely unregulated, meaning any company can use it in their marketing literature or packaging. Many toiletries claim ‘natural’ when in fact they are chock full of toxic chemicals. I have also seen the words ‘green’, ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ used in the same manner, which can be highly misleading when these words do not have to represent any regulated standard. Then we have the language which conquers up a certain feeling within a consumer. This is very common in food labelling, ‘fresh from the country’, ‘just like nature intended’, ‘pine forest’, ‘farmers choice’ etc. We are taken to a whimsical, location in our minds and we like the imagery. Never mind that it is entirely marketing speak and completely divorced from reality which could well mean factory farms with penned animals and huge sprayed mono-cropped fields.
2. Hyped up special ingredients added in minuscule amounts
Often we are advertised wonderful sounding products with ingredients that we want and that we have heard are very beneficial. This could be pure essential oils, plant extracts or superfoods. Often certain ingredients get popular and companies rush to add them to a product so they can then claim to contain said ingredient. They are often ingredients with a high price tag and so we automatically hold the product with higher esteem and might even be willing to pay more for it over a comparable product without the lauded ingredient. Or perhaps the price is quite low and so we gleefully make the purchase believing we got a bargain. However, often we are not getting a deal. We are simply being fed green wash and not a lot else. The exciting ingredient is often added in miniscule amounts (there is not regulation around this) and the benefits of said ingredient will also be proportionately miniscule. A good way to check on this is to see where the ingredient features on the label. If it is towards the bottom of the list this would be a sign that there are low levels of it within the product. It is good to then take notice of the first few ingredients, this is what most of the product is composed of, often things that aren’t mentioned on the front.
3. Organic Hijacking
This is common and so very unfair. Unfortunately in the United States a product can use the word organic on the main front label if it contains a single certified organic ingredient. Luckily, the UK is much stricter and the word cannot be used in quite the same way. I’ve seen products use organic but meaning ‘organic material’ with the obvious intention to mislead consumers. What you need to look for is the organic certification label. Certain labeling authorities are also stricter and harder to be awarded. In the UK the Soil Association certification is the best in terms of animal welfare and limiting the use of certain chemicals. The main mark to look for in the states is the USDA. Watch out for made up marks that are simply designed in house by the producers themselves and which don’t mean a thing apart from telling us the product meets the standards they have set themselves.
4. Misleading Imagery and logos
Like with words and language, imagery and logos can also be highly misleading and again this is unregulated. I’ve seen the well-known recycling logo used on products attempting to look eco-friendly, swirling leaf designs, appealing photos of forests, rivers and meadows on products containing hazardous chemicals. Happy people out in nature, happy animals grazing in fields, smiling farmers holding chickens, milk maids in old-fashioned overalls and general small, local producer imagery on mass-produced, factory farmed, commercial products. Even without words these images reach our subconscious and make us feel good and lead us into making a purchase based on emotion rather then facts.
Unfortunately, reading a label and making an informed decision when buying a new product can be quite the process when you understand the greenwash definition. Once you see beyond these common, cunning ploys and see beyond the greenwash it can be quite shocking at how much out there is marketed in this deceitful way.
It can also be a bit of a drag going to the store and realising that many old favourites you have been enjoying for years are suddenly a lot less appealing after you see how you have been subtly manipulated into making a purchase based on a delusion.
Take heart however, the more consumers wise up to these games and support real ethical, certified producers the more mainstream and normal these practices will become. The market is lead by consumer desires after all. So vote with your dollar and say no to greenwash.
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